CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart are entering next month’s Chili Bowl Nationals in honor of late racer Jason Leffler.
Kahne will drive a car entered in combination with Stewart, Leffler’s girlfriend, Julianna Patterson, and former father-in-law, Bob East., in the Jan. 14-18 race at the Tulsa Expo Center in Oklahoma.
Plans had been for Leffler and Patterson to co-own the car, and Leffler and East to build it together before Leffler’s death in a June sprint car crash. East continued the project following the accident, and Patterson turned to Stewart for help after the three-time NASCAR champion broke his leg in his own sprint car accident last season.
“She told me, ‘I’m going to be a car owner at the Chili Bowl’ and I said, ‘OK?’ kind of quizzically, and it’s just gone on from there,” Stewart told The Associated Press. “Bob is building the car. The owner was going to be Jason and Julianna, and I really wanted to be involved.”
So did Kahne, who was close friends with the 37-year-old Leffler, a journeyman NASCAR driver who loved racing so much he entered everything he could. The night he was killed in a sprint car race in New Jersey, the winner was guaranteed just $7,000.
Kahne had to first convince his NASCAR team owner, Rick Hendrick, to sign off on his participation in the Chili Bowl. Hendrick hasn’t forbidden Kahne from any extracurricular racing, but hasn’t exactly rubber-stamped Kahne’s opportunities, either.
Kahne felt racing in honor of Leffler at the Chili Bowl, with the promise of raffling off the car after for the Charlie Dean Leffler Discretionary Trust to benefit Leffler’s son, would get him the permission from Hendrick.
“There’s just a lot of good reasons to get involved,” Kahne told AP. “Jason loved Chili Bowl, he was always so good at Chili Bowl and I enjoy driving on dirt. It was just such a good idea for me do it for Jason.”
Tony Stewart Racing is assisting East with the engine and driveline. Stewart’s involvement in the venture makes Kahne eligible to compete in the Jan. 14 Race of Champions.
“He’ll get to race more, more track time. I’m excited,” Stewart said. “Kasey and I have owned open wheel teams and competed against each other, but this gives us a chance to work together on something.”
The Chili Bowl is one of the most prestigious midget events of the year and has a star-studded lineup. The entry list is nearing 250 already and includes Sammy and Kevin Swindell, Joey Saldana, Bryan Clauson, and NASCAR drivers Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Kyle Larson.
It’s not the first time Kahne has jumped in to honor Leffler.
Kahne wore a black hat with Leffler’s “LEFturn” nickname on it the days after Leffler’s death, and reaction was so positive he decided to produce the hat to sell as a fundraiser for Charlie Dean’s trust.
His website crashed within minutes of him launching sale of the $20 hats.
“We had a lot of people asking about them after wearing them at Michigan, so I thought, ‘Man, we can do hats,’ because I thought a hat was something people could have forever,” he said. “But we just sold thousands and thousands of hats. Way more than we were prepared for.
“My mom and my grandma sent hats out for months and months. Some people started getting upset because it was taking so long to get their hat, but at the end of the day, we had two people doing it. We’d still be selling them, but we had to shut it off because I needed them to catch up. It was close to 20,000 hats, and it worked out really well for Charlie.”